This year is the second year that we have participated in the Digital Technology Solutions apprenticeship with the Manchester Metropolitan University. We originally found out about the apprenticeships when we were invited to a working-breakfast hosted by Business Growth Hub. Several companies who already had apprentices were shouting the praises of the course, and apprenticeships as a whole. We had previously looked into apprenticeships and had come to the conclusion that they weren’t for us – but the MMU course offered a good mix of support for the apprentices and a course structure that we felt would help us too.
We signed up for our first pair of apprentices last year, and were very impressed at how quickly they both settled into the team. We had some teething problems which has resulted in one of them returning to full-time education, but throughout the process the Skills Coach from the MMU worked closely with us to make sure that both we and the apprentice who left us received support and guidance.
The way the apprenticeship works is incredibly simple – the apprentices attend the university for formal lectures one day a week, and for the rest of the time we give them a range of tasks. We try to mix in simple tasks relating to our own products, tutorials and research tasks, and some odd-ball projects to help them develop their skills. For example, we are currently on the brink of releasing a whole new re-designed website which has grown out of a number of experiments with CSS, and research into current website trends. Where possible we try to dovetail their working tasks with the lectures and coursework they are completing.
The overall experience was so good that we took on two more apprentices this summer to start in September. We believe that we have a healthy and vibrant working environment that can nurture their skills – and they have the enthusiasm and interest in current technology trends to contribute to the team. We know they won’t necessarily be skilled programmers on day 1 – but working with the MMU they will get the training to bring them up to speed, and we can give them real-life problems to get their teeth into once they are ready.
There have been some completely unexpected consequences – we’ve have to tighten up our code review and testing processes to make sure we can deliver the same quality releases no matter who is doing the work. We’ve also had to change how we refine and prioritise our sprint tasks to make sure that everyone in the team has a clear understanding of every programming issue – we found early on that any one of us could be called on to support and mentor an apprentice on a specific task, and so we all needed to be able to advise them correctly. This has had a positive effect on the rest of the team, and has contributed to a more consistent and reliable release cycle.